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How do you overcome advisers constantly moving the football / changing their minds?

I write papers after recommendations from my advisers and every time I end up redoing the entire analysis or asking an entirely different question. I feel like Charlie Brown and Lucy keeps moving the football. Here are three examples:

  1. I spent the entire third year of my PhD working on a paper with my committee chair using a specific type of model he specializes in to answer my research question. After completing the paper and submitting it to my department for review, my adviser comes back and says to scrap it. I pushed back a bit and asked what should be changed, but nothing could change his mind. He wanted a two-page outlining the new research question and modeling strategy. So I scrapped it and now the paper sits in a folder in my Dropbox.

  2. I spent my summer working on another paper with my committee chair as part of my dissertation. I finalize my results and draft a paper for my proposal defense. My committee approves my proposal, but in a meeting afterwards my chair suggests I redo the research question and thus incorporate a new modeling strategy. The paper has gone through several revisions, is complete, and ready to be sent out for peer review. However, here I am again reworking the analysis with a completely different modeling strategy and question.

  3. And finally, another paper I have been working on has had results for over a year, but is now undergoing a major revision to rework the modeling strategy, again. I am now on the 4th major revision of this paper having redone the entire analysis each time. I was literally writing up the results/discussion section of the paper when I received an email suggesting we rework the model.

On top of these three examples, I have two working papers that need minor revisions and are at a point where they could be sent out for peer review. I have published several papers as lead author and constantly review papers for other academic journals in my field, so while my experience is limited I know my research can be published.

I feel like my advisers keep moving the football and I can't get my dissertation completed. I was on track to graduate in the spring, but none of the papers for my dissertation are complete and it appears I will need another year. But my experience thus far has lead me to believe Lucy will continue to move the football, so I'm considering dropping out and finishing ABD.

How can I deal with this constant momentum shift of my papers with advisers?

  • This isn't directly relevant, but I'm wondering if your adviser gave you any reasons for all these constant do-overs. You haven't said so explicitly one way of the other. Is he dissatisfied with the existing work and thinks it can be done better? Or something else? – Faheem Mitha Nov 12 '17 at 13:05
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    submitting it to my department for review — What?? Why does the department (or your advisor) need to review your research before you submit it for publication? – JeffE Nov 12 '17 at 14:08
  • @JeffE Third year paper is submitted to the department for review. It is not necessary for publication, but necessary for pass/fail during third year. – Amstell Nov 13 '17 at 1:11
18

I experienced a bit of what you're describing near the end of my PhD. I got a lot of good advice from colleagues that had completed their doctorates. Here's how I dealt with it.

Remember that it's your PhD, and you are (mostly) in charge. At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what's really required for a PhD. (If not, skim more dissertations from similar research projects.)

There will always be more that could be done to further the research. There's always another technique you could try, another analysis to do. Your goal should be to do what's required to finish the PhD, no more. (Of course, you want to do quality work, but if you've made it this far, I doubt you'd settle for less.) You can always continue the research as a postdoc, or let someone else continue it. That's what the "future directions" section is for in your thesis.

Your advisors are focussed on the research itself, and the logical next steps, rather than on wrapping up your PhD. That doesn't mean they're bad people, or deliberately trying to frustrate you. They're just human.

Sit down and figure out what you think needs to be done before you are ready to finish the experiments, finalise your thesis, and defend it. Then meet with your advisors and get their feedback. If they suggest doing more experiments or analysis, beyond what you think is necessary, you might say something like "I agree that's a good future direction, but I think that could be done post-PhD." Your goal is not to convince them that X doesn't need to be done, it's to discuss whether X needs to be done before the PhD can be awarded. Negotiate things from that point-of-view, and I think you'll find it easier to reach agreement.

5

One of my colleagues went through a similar problem when he was in graduate school: his primary advisor kept moving the goalposts on him as he was trying to finish all his papers and graduate.

There are no easy solutions here. The best thing I would do is use the fact that you have all of this work done waiting and ready to go out. It sounds like you already have enough material for a dissertation. Therefore, I would suggest that you compile everything you have done so far, and present it to your committee. Let them know that "this is what I have done that's waiting for peer review," and ask if everyone can come to the agreement that it's ready to go out. If not, then ask, as mhwombat suggests, exactly what needs to be done. Then stick to it. (It seems your advisor has a severe case of "perfectionitis"—good for him in the long term, bad for you in the here and now.)

  • 2
    good for him in the long term — [citation needed] – JeffE Nov 12 '17 at 14:10

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